How to Become a Nurse in 3 Steps: Guide to Becoming a RN
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Want to know how to become a nurse? How long does it take to become a nurse? What’s the typical registered nurse salary?
You’ve come to the right place.
Figuring out how to become an RN can feel like trying to diagnose a mystery disease.
There are sooo many answers online and dozens of nursing careers.
How can you know if nursing’s right for you if you can’t learn the basic facts?
The short answer?
In two years, you can be wearing bright blue scrubs and earning $50K a year as an RN.
But stay with me to make the smartest choice.
This guide answers:
- How long does it take to become a nurse?
- How to become a registered nurse in 1½ years.
- How much do nurses make with different nursing degrees and nursing careers?
- The best online RN programs and RN degrees.
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How to Become a Nurse
How hard is nursing school? Is it hard to become a nurse? How long does it take?
In short, what’s your quickest path to nursing like Ann Traeger?
The good news? Most people can start working as a nurse in just two years, even straight out of high school.
How to become a registered nurse:
- Earn a nursing degree (1 ½–4 years)
- Pass the NCLEX exam (a few weeks)
- Receive your RN license (a few weeks)
Simple, you say? Well, hang on.
There are lots of different nursing degrees. You’ll need to decide which is right for you.
How long does it take to become a registered nurse?
1 ½–4 years.
It takes 1 ½ years for an accelerated degree (with an existing, unrelated BSN).
An ADN takes 2 years.
A BSN takes 4 years.
An MSN takes up to 7 years.
How much do nurses earn?
RNs earn $40K–$80K depending on location and training.
Nurse practitioners and anesthetists earn $90K–$208K.
Can you be a non-registered nurse?
A Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) or Licensed Vocational Nurse (LVN) (same thing but in California or Texas) is technically a “non-registered nurse.” They’re licensed and they have to take the NCLEX-PN exam, but they’re not RNs. Their training can be done in as little as 13 months.
Don’t worry. Learning how to become an RN isn’t as confusing as it sounds. I’ll show the different nursing degrees next.
Pro Tip: What is the difference between a registered nurse and BSN? RN is a title. A BSN (bachelor’s degree) is how to get the title. Another way is an ADN (associate’s degree).
Plan to work as a CNA while you get your degree? Left nurse school and need a resume? See our full guides:
- Nursing Resume
- Nursing Student Resume
- Caregiver Resume
- CNA Resume
- Medical Assistant Resume
- Phlebotomy Resume
- ICU Nurse Resume
- Med-Surg Nurse Resume
- Charge Nurse Resume
- Pediatric Nurse Resume
- OR Nurse Resume
- Labor and Delivery Nurse Resume
- Nurse Practitioner Resume
- LPN Resume
Choose a Nursing Degree and Complete It
Step one for how to become a nurse? Get an RN degree.
But which nursing degrees pay the highest registered nurse salary? (The range is $40,000–$80,000.)
This section shows the easiest path and quickest way to earn the highest RN starting salary.
Use any of these three nursing degree programs to get your RN license. There are great online RN programs for all three.
As you’ll see, there are three different answers to, “How long is nursing school?”
2-Year Nursing Degrees
ADN RN Degree—Registered Nurse Salary Range: $40K–$80K
An ADN (Associates Degree in Nursing) takes 2 years. Some experts say it’s harder to get hired with an ADN. Others disagree.
It’s how to become an RN in 2 years.
Many nurses consider ADNs just as qualified as BSNs.
Can get it with online RN programs.
Can upgrade to BSN with online classes in 2 years or less.
Can advance to MSN (master’s degree) in some nursing programs without BSN.
Some employers won’t hire ADNs.
Harder to advance to higher-paying RN jobs.
Can’t work in a Magnet certified facility. (8.3% of hospitals.)
But aren’t ADNs on life support? The National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) prefers nurses with bachelor’s degrees. Plus—
Several states introduced legislation to ban ADNs in 2010, but it failed to pass. ADNs are frowned on by some, but a national nursing shortage means they’re here to stay.
Most nurses feel bachelors-prepared nurses don’t have much more prep than associates-prepared nurses. I’ve worked as a travel nurse with an ADN in Washington, Virginia, and West Virginia and never had any trouble finding work.
The best answer for how to become a registered nurse? Get a BSN. But if you lack the time or money, don’t shy away from an ADN. You can always take BSN nursing classes online.
Accelerated Degree in Nursing—Registered Nurse Salary Range: $40K–$80K
How do you become an RN fast?
With an Accelerated Degree. It’s a BSN for students who already have non-nursing bachelor’s degrees. It takes 1½–2 years.
Gets your BSN in 1½–2 years.
No difference from regular BSN.
Can be achieved with online RN programs.
May require extra prerequisite classes, depending on your original coursework.
Must have a bachelor’s degree to start.
A BSN will give you more flexibility in scope of practice, better hiring chances, and higher pay. Generally a BSN is seen as better than an ADN, but I’ve met some ADNs I’d trust my life with and some BSNs I wouldn’t trust with my lunch.
4-Year Nursing Degree
BSN RN Degree—Registered Nurse Salary Range: $40K–$80K
A BSN is a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. It takes 4 years.
Easier to find a nursing job.
Easier to earn high pay quicker.
More options to advance to a master’s degree.
Only way to work in a Magnet certified facility. (8.3% of hospitals).
Can be achieved with online RN programs.
Takes 4 years to start working as an RN.
Still no guarantee of getting a job or earning more than an ADN RN.
Get the highest-level license you can possibly get now. If you don’t, ten years from now you’ll be behind.
Pro Tip: How to become an RN comes down to picking a 2-year or 4-year RN degree. You’ll also take the NCLEX exam before you start the nursing process, I’ll explain that next.
Learning how to become a nurse means getting a nursing job too. Start networking during school to make things easier. See our guide: How to Network Your Way Into a $100000 Job [Real-Life Story]
Pass the NCLEX and Get Licensed
Getting an RN degree is step one for how to become a nurse. But—
How do you get an RN license?
No matter which of the three nursing degrees you choose, you need to pass the NCLEX exam. It puts the “registered” in “registered nurse.”
To take the NCLEX:
Register with the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCBSN). They’ll send you an Authorization to Test notification.
- Is computer-administered.
- Asks between 75–265 questions, depending how well you answer as you go.
- Takes 6 hours.
- Has a 25%–30% failure rate.
- Can be retaken 45 days after failure.
- Is the second part of how to become a registered nurse (after the degree).
- Costs $200.
What do nurses do to get ready for the NCLEX? Study hard and take some test prep.
For the NCLEX, Kaplan prep was amazing. It came with my program. As a result I passed the NCLEX at 75 questions. I thought I’d failed because the questions seemed so hard! That’s actually a good sign—it’s a smart test, so the better you’re doing, the harder the questions.
Pro Tip: How long does it take to become a nurse after passing the NCLEX? It’s often automatic, but check nursinglicensure.org. It’ll show if your state has additional requirements for how to become an RN, like a background check.
One more tip for how to become a nurse—write a cover letter. See our guide: Nursing Cover Letter Sample & Complete Writing Guide [15+ Examples]
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When you’re done, Zety’s resume builder will score your resume and tell you exactly how to make it better.
Nursing Degree Programs
Ready to don your nursing clogs and start helping patients?
The biggest part of how to become a nurse is earning that RN degree.
Here are 40 best nursing degree programs—for in-person nursing degrees, online RN programs, ADNs, BSNs, MSNs, and accelerated degrees.
The RN programs below are ranked by cost, job placement, washout rate, and other key factors.
Want to know how to become an RN with the most prestigious schools? Here’s a list:
Top Nursing Degree Programs in the US
- Duke University
- University of Pennsylvania
- Case Western Reserve University
- Ohio State University
- University of California Los Angeles
- New York University
- University of Michigan
- University of Washington
- University of Minnesota
- Emory University
Here’s a complete list of the 50 best nursing degrees/programs in the U.S.
The program you’re accepted to doesn’t have much bearing on your career. Just study hard and be nice. –Steve Dickey, Nurse Practitioner
Need to know how to become a registered nurse online? Don’t stop at the list below. There are hundreds of online RN programs in the U.S.
Best Online RN Programs
- St. Xavier University
- Ohio State University
- Medical University of South Carolina
- University of Colorado
- George Washington University
- Johns Hopkins University
- University of South Carolina
- University of Texas—Tyler
- Catholic University of America
- Duke University
Here are the 150+ best online nursing degrees/programs in the U.S.
How long does it take to become a nurse? That depends what path you take. The ADN online RN programs below do it in two years.
Best 2-Year Online RN Programs
- Kansas City Kansas Community College
- Snead State Community College
- Hutchinson Community College
- Mitchell Community College
- Pratt Community College
- West Kentucky Community and Technical College
- Southeast Arkansas College
Here’s the full list of the 25 best 2-year online nursing degrees/programs in the U.S.
Trying to get an RN degree on a budget? Try one of the affordable online RN programs below.
Most Affordable BSN Online RN Programs
- Newman University
- Lincoln Memorial University
- Ball State University
- Fort Hays State University
- Northern Arizona University
- University of Rhode Island
- Aurora University
- University of Northern Colorado
- Western Carolina University
- Clarkson College
Here’s a list of the 25 most affordable 4-year online nursing degrees/programs in the U.S.
Pro Tip: Nursing school requirements for an ADN or BSN include a high school diploma or GED. You’ll also need to take the Test of Essential Academic Skills (TEAS).
Applying to different types of nursing jobs means answering interview questions like, “Why do you want to be a nurse?” See our guide for help: Top 25 Nursing Interview Questions & Answers
There’s a lot more to your career path than simply learning how to become an RN.
Will you stop at RN? Will you specialize to earn six figures? Nursing careers can take you lots of different places.
ADN to BSN
Got your ADN RN degree but want to upgrade to a bachelor’s?
Hundreds of ADN-to-BSN nursing degrees make it easy to switch.
Chamberlain University does a flexible online RN to BSN, as well as master’s programs. Classes last 8 weeks and you take one or more at a time,so you can fit it to your schedule.
ADN to Master’s Degree
Nurses with master’s degrees (MSN) can earn registered nurse salary from $90K–$208K. The low-end is for an entry-level Nurse Practitioner. The high-end goes to top-earning nurse anesthetists.
Did you know you can jump straight from 2-year nursing degrees to MSN degrees without a BSN?
Nurse Journal publishes a list of the top 12 RN-to-MSN degree programs.
Nurses need a certain number of CEUs (Continuing Education Units) every year. The amount depends on the state you work in—usually 25–30 hours.
You can fill those units by attending hospital-sponsored trainings, conferences, and online nursing classes.
How Much Do Nurses Make?
How Much do Nurses Make?
Pro Tip: What’s the fastest way to become a nurse? With a 1 ½-year accelerated RN degree. It only works if you’ve already got a bachelor’s. Starting from scratch, a 2-year ADN is the quickest way to become a nurse.
Need a resume to get into RN school? See our guide: How to Write a High School Resume for College Application
Plus, a great cover letter that matches your resume will give you an advantage over other candidates. You can write it in our cover letter builder here. Here's what it may look like:
See more cover letter templates and start writing.
Now you know how to become an RN, including the steps to becoming a nurse after high school, how to get an RN license, and how many years it takes to become a nurse.
Here’s a quick recap of how to become a nurse:
- Get an RN degree. Choose from an accelerated degree (1½ years) ADN (2 years) or BSN (4 years).
- Take the NCLEX exam. Once you pass the NCLEX, getting your nursing license is automatic in most states.
- Optional: Since employers prefer BSNs, consider upgrading. Lots of online RN programs turn 2-year nursing degrees into 4-year degrees in as little as 3 semesters.
- The sky’s the limit. With an RN degree, you can advance to a master’s and become a nurse practitioner or nurse anesthetist. They make $90K–$208K.
Do you have questions on how to become a nurse? Still not sure which degree to go for? Give us a shout in the comments! We’d be happy to reply.